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Coronavirus: Fear contagion, legislative responses

| Updated: March 19, 2020 20:47:01

Coronavirus: Fear contagion, legislative responses

Many countries, including Bangladesh that are yet to combat a large-scale invasion of the invisible army of deadly virus may learn a few things from South Korea, Italy, and lagging US responses. Both South Korea and Italy have a similar population size, both traced their first incidence of infections outside major cities and at around the same time both dealt with a rapid escalation of cases in the making.

South Korea recorded a death rate of less than 1.0  per cent, according to WHO reports while Italy's crossed over 14 per cent on March 13 and counting. The global average death rate is currently between 3-4 per cent.

South Korea has perhaps been the most effective in tracking the virus, using smart technologies to trace, test, and treat people. With its well-funded universal health care system, it ran about 15,000 diagnostic tests per day and administered more than 200,000 tests nationwide. Many parts of the country have instituted  drive-through testing booths, avoiding face-to-face contact and thus made testing easy and low-risk incidences. Of late, several cities in the US have adopted this innovative approach of drive through testing, which are being expanded to many more locations. Two of the EU's biggest states, Spain and France, have followed Italy in announcing emergency restrictions. All these measures including the regime of quarantine are implemented to slowdown and deescalate the spread of the virus. 

Years of lacklustre economic growth and austerity measures have weakened Italy's universal health care and made the country vulnerable to any shock like the COVID-19 pandemic. Italy's higher death rate may also be attributed to its older population (average 45.5 years vs South Korea's 41.8) - to whom the virus has been found disproportionately deadlier. 

The US is the last major country to be invaded by coronavirus. Once it crossed the Atlantic unnoticed and landed on the shores of the US, it has first surfaced on January 21 in Washington State. The doctor who treated the first US patient had warned that the COVID-19 had been 'circulating unchecked' for weeks. Situation could have been better contained had it not been for conflicting messages emanating from the White House vs. the infectious disease professionals at the CDC (Center for Disease Control).

 President Trump has declared National Emergency and imposed travel restrictions from all European countries -- U.K and Ireland are included in the list today.  He is now considering imposition of limited domestic travel restrictions as well. All these moves are making us nervous and slowly pushing people to slide into a panic zone. 

According to an MSNBC report, in the US the number of infections is estimated to be doubling every 5- or 6-days excluding intervention cases. "Between 160 million and 214 million people in the United States could potentially be infected over the course of the epidemic" according to one projection. That could last months or even over a year, with infections concentrated in shorter periods, staggered across time in different communities, experts believe. As many as 200,000 to 1.7 million people could die" (Sheri Fink, The New York Times, March 13, 2020).

One may not forget that there are over 11 million illegal and undocumented immigrants living in the US who would be afraid to report for treatment -- if infected with the virus. About 44 million people in this country have no health insurance, and another 38 million have inadequate health insurance. Many of these millions may not seek medical help either because they are uninsured or undocumented. That puts rest of the population in greater vulnerability to the virus. 

In my State, Michigan, so far only a few COVID-19 cases were identified and quarantined. The virus is no doubt doing its course of spreading silently. That fear of the unknown has created a panic, persuading the Governor Gretchen Whitmer to declare a state of emergency. Classes at all levels in Michigan are suspended and in many cases are being conducted online. This course of action is underway across the country.

Stores' shelves are emptied as soon as fresh supplies are placed on empty shelf spaces. Hand soaps, sanitisers, disinfectants, face masks are nowhere to find.  People have also been stocking up food items and somewhat surprising item - such as toilet paper, face tissues. Sander van der Linden, social psychology professor at Cambridge University, characterised this as a "fear contagion" phenomenon.  "When people are stressed their reason is hampered, so they look at what other people are doing. If others are stockpiling, it leads you to engage in the same behaviour." The fear contagion has forced me to buy a 50-piece packet of face masks online and paid three times the regular price of $30.

According to Dimitrios Tsivrikos, of consumer and business psychology department at University College London, "In times of uncertainty, people enter a panic zone that makes them irrational and completely neurotic. In other disaster conditions like a flood, we can prepare because we know how many supplies we need, but we have a virus now we know nothing about."

Peter Noel Murray, a New York-based member of the American Psychological Association and the Society for Consumer Psychology argues that cognitive and emotional responses were the two key factors involved in influencing our decisions during situations like the coronavirus outbreak."In this case the cognitive factor is cognitive bias, (which means) we tend to overemphasise things that are recent and very vivid," he explained. "When there's a plane crash people don't fly, when there's a shark attack, people think all sharks are killers. That process makes us think that whatever the current thing is, it's similar to some terrible thing - it catastrophises our view of whatever this thing is." In this case, Murray said, "people might be associating the coronavirus with a past deadly outbreak, like the 1918 Spanish flu that killed around 50 million people worldwide."

"On the emotional side, the answer is self-affirmation. In our minds we know one day we are going to be dead, and the mind deals with it through (seeking) control," Murray said. "There's an over-representation of fear and people's minds need to respond to those kinds of feelings," he added. "The need for self-affirmation is triggered, and that drives us to do unreasonable things like buying a year's worth of toilet paper. It overwhelms the knowledge that we don't need to be doing that."

The concern over coronavirus has scrambled Congressional leaders to pass a comprehensive package that would address the social safety net for vulnerable children and families whose lives may be disrupted by the virus. Congress already passed an $8.3 billion total coronavirus response package last week. But that seems highly inadequate given the evolving severity and escalation of the virus.

 Today in the early hours of the morning (March 14) the US Congress has passed legislation with several provisions to ameliorate the severity of coronavirus-related to health and financial distress of low-income earners. They include "free coronavirus testing for everyone who needs a test, including the uninsured, paid emergency leave with two weeks of paid sick leave and up to three months of paid family and medical leave." It will also expand federal funding for Medicaid "to support our local, state, tribal and territorial governments and health systems, so that they have the resources necessary to combat this crisis."

Most developing countries do not have the resources to combat a deadly pandemic like the COVID-19. The most effective way to defeat the virus and keep it from spreading and for that matter any infectious disease, is to follow medical professionals' guidelines (example: "social distancing": avoiding hugging, handshakes, partying, public gathering and so on) as stringently as possible. That is what the US Centre for Disease Control is alerting us about -- relentlessly.

Dr. Abdullah A Dewan, formerly a physicist and a nuclear engineer at Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commision (BAEC), is Professor of Economics at Eastern Michigan University, USA.


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